What Your Brain And Your Lawn Have In Common

When we hear stories about world class creators like Lady Gaga or Lin Manuel-Miranda, or ultra-successful entrepreneurs like Elon Musk or Sara Blakely, we immediately think these people must have some special gift that we normal folk are missing. As if the skies opened for a brief moment and the gods anointed a chosen few with heavenly powers. We’re led to believe that we’re either creative or we’re not, and there’s very little we can do about it.

This is what we’ve been told our whole lives. And it’s dead wrong.

Over the last decade, neuroscientists have made massive leaps forward in understanding the human brain. Much of this bold discovery has been the result of advanced technology such as fMRI machines, providing history-making clarity and unlocking century-old mysteries about how the brain functions.

A key finding is the concept of neuroplasticity, now widely accepted in the scientific community. Until recently, the prevailing belief was that your brain was fixed. It was wired the way it was wired, and that was that. You’ve probably heard myths such as brain cells can’t regenerate or that cognition is the result of a piece of static equipment, incapable of adapting or growing.

If your brain was the lawnmower you bought at a garage sale, there was nothing you could really do to upgrade it shy of replacing it entirely by shelling out $1,900 for a brand-new John Deere E120 42 in., 20 hp, V-twin Gas Hydrostatic Riding Mower (try discount code: neuroplasticity).

It turns out, the brain isn’t at all like the old lawnmower that can’t be rebuilt. It’s more like the lawn itself. Your lawn is malleable, responding to changes in environment, fertilizer, pesticides, new seeds, and your neighbor’s yappy brown poodle. If you never water your lawn, it turns to scorched earth. Leave it unprotected and it becomes a hideous weed field. But if you add new seeds, fertilizer, and irrigation, trimming—if you protect and care for it—your emerald-green lawn can become the envy of the subdivision. A lawn is something that responds to change; it can be grown or killed, thickened or depleted, beautified or polluted. With the right care, it can quickly bounce back from previous neglect, once again growing and thriving.

That is the essence of the incredible breakthrough of neuroplasticity: your brain isn’t fixed…it can change, adapt, and grow. One of the least-technical definitions I found was from a 2017 article in the painfully dry scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology: Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience: “Neuroplasticity can be viewed as a general umbrella term that refers to the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience.” (Pro tip: reading technical neuroscience research is an excellent cure for insomnia.)

What made bespectacled research scientists want to stand up from their lab desks to dance in a conga line? It was the proof that our brains can form new pathways, synapses, and connections. We’re not just talking learning; we’re talking actual changes in brain chemistry and composition. Just as coal can transform into diamonds and snotty teenagers can eventually transform into tolerable human beings, your brain is something that can be shaped and developed.

Relating to your creativity, I’m taking a big leap here and coining a new phrase: INNOplasticity. (Should I disappear unexpectedly, please notify the authorities to investigate the evil geniuses behind Frontiers in Psychology: Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience.)

Building on its big brother neuroplasticity, innoplasticity is the notion that your creativity is expandable just like your brain. Swapping out a few words from the above definition, think of innoplasticity as “a general umbrella term that refers to one’s ability to modify, adapt, and grow creative capacity throughout life and in response to training, development, and experience.”

Innoplasticity is a fancy way of saying that your creative potential is far greater than the creativity you had at birth, in eleventh grade, or even now. All of us can cultivate and improve our imagination, the same way brains—and front lawns—can transform for the better.  And these changes can happen much faster than you might think.

(The above is an excerpt from Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results. Please note: This is the most technical part of the whole book.  So if you stayed awake here, you’ll love the rest of the book.)